A sweeping victory

Strict lines: Sanitation workers do not come together to demand equal wages because of the perceived hierarchies of the job.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Roads in Mumbai are divided into nine-kilometre stretches for sanitation purposes; each of these stretches is swept by 18 workers. On April 12 this year, Deepa Dothare swept her half-kilometre in Versova, as she did every day. When her shift was done, she did not head straight home; instead, she went to Chunabhatti to join in a celebration.

Prakash Kataramal became a contract sanitation worker in 2006, at age 17. His father is long dead, his mother works as a sanitation worker in a housing society. His March wages have not yet been paid to his bank account; the contractor has told him and his colleagues that the bank manager is on a vacation. But he went to the celebration too.

In Chunabhatti, Ms. Dothare and Mr. Kataramal joined other sanitation workers to celebrate a Supreme Court (SC) judgement [see box] with loud music, invocations of “Jai Bhim!” and a blue teeka on every forehead. A hired ‘chariot’ rolled down the main road, carrying some of the local leaders of the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS, an organisation representing contract sanitation workers), to an open spot bedecked with large posters of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

There were speeches of gratitude and a call to continue the struggle for justice and to root out discrimination. “It is immensely auspicious for us that our struggle has borne fruit just ahead of Ambedkar Jayanti,” said Dadarao Patekar, vice president of KVSS. “This only means one thing: that we ought to educate, organise and agitate, just as Babasaheb called us to do.”

The victory

A week earlier, the Supreme Court had confirmed the ‘permanent’ job status of 2,700 labourers who work for contractors who take work from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) solid waste management department. Their salary and benefits will also now be on par with the 28,500 workers currently directly employed by the department: from a daily wage of ₹550 — or ₹14,300 for 26 days of work — they will get between ₹25,000 and ₹28,000 per month, based on the Sixth Pay Commission and depending on the worker’s date of joining (between 2005 and 2007).

The workers’ battle for decent wages and job security has been long. KVSS, which has been mobilising contract sanitation workers since 1996, filed this petition 10 years ago, in 2007.

The battle, though, is only partly won: these 2,700 workers are more secure now, but there are another 7,800 people contracted to the Solid Waste Management Department. In addition, the civic body’s mechanisation plans will further impact the employment of these workers.

An exploitative system

In the 1990s, impressed by the impact of the contract system in Hyderabad, the BMC began to contract work out, floating tenders with specific details, including that the duration of contract not be more than 240 days. Deepak Bhalerao, who has been pursuing the rights of workers through various unions for over four decades, and who is the current president of KVSS, says that the cycle of issuing tenders by the BMC for contractors does not skip a single day, and so workers are made to feel a sense of permanency with their work.

The contract system has loopholes that, arguably, have been exploited by the BMC and contractors.

The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, says that all contract workers are entitled to permanent positions if they work continuously for 240 days. Contractors game this by only hiring workers for seven months, or 210 days, after which workers are made to sign fresh contracts. This is despite both the principal employer — the BMC — and the employees staying constant.

Then there is the Contract Labour Act of 1970, which lays down the rights of workers in establishments with more than 20 workers. The BMC outsources work to several small contractors, who circumvent the legal restrictions by hiring less than 20 people, thus retaining the upper hand with the workers.

Another grey area is deductions. Mr. Bhalerao says, “The contract workers currently get a 16% deduction in their wages, on account of provident fund and employee’s state insurance. But none of them have received any receipts that prove that the deducted money is indeed being saved in their accounts. [For example,] the family members of a contract worker who died on the first day of this year do not have any document to be able claim his insurance.”

Milind Ranade, who started KVSS in the 1990s, says that the condition of workers was worse earlier. “[Contractors] would call themselves cooperatives, but would not give voting rights to their members. [Workers’] daily wages would be ₹127, but they would have to pay a fine of ₹150 for taking leave.” He remembers riding in dumper trucks to be able talk to workers about organising, and demanding their rights as workers towards whom BMC has its obligations.

S.A. Ansari, Chief Engineer of the Solid Waste Management Department at BMC, says, “The problem with this case of 2,700 workers is that only BMC was called as principal employer. The liability is also with the contractor.” He says that contract workers are welcome to approach their respective ward office if they do not receive their benefits. Mr. Ansari added that soon, the BMC would issue ‘job works’ to contractors to get specific jobs done with utmost detail, so that the BMC is not forced to intervene with contract workers.


In March 2017, the BMC introduced mechanical street cleaners, leading to protests by workers. Mr. Bhalerao says that that the tenders for these machines were floated online in late 2016, but “none of the workers' unions were informed about this. Introducing these machines without consultation of workers would be illegal, if the jobs are protected.”

“Are you satisfied by the service of any government, or the municipal commissioner, or the chief minister?” Mr. Ranade asks. “Why are their jobs not on the contract system? We don’t mind mechanisation, but it has to be brought about by due process of law. It is indeed a long process like all other processes, so why not implement notice of change?”

Mr. Ansari says that the machines are a mark of progress. “Using machines to clean the streets is a futuristic approach for better cleanliness and efficiency. The machines are here to stay.” Currently, there are three such machines in the eastern suburbs, and more would be soon introduced in the western suburbs and the island city.

Critics of the purchase of these machines say they would not be operable on the city’s notoriously-potholed roads. “No road can be flat 100%,” Mr. Ansari says in response, “so these machines have been designed to favour our streets.” When asked about using the machines while still complying with the SC verdict, Mr. Ansari said that BMC must find a way for machines and humans to work in harmony.

The mechanisation move also highlights a deeper problem: the dearth of jobs in the city, and the paucity of skill training. As a result, there is a surfeit of unskilled and low-skilled people ready to take any job available, no matter the working conditions.

Caste divisions

In all, there are about 22 worker unions representing BMC employees.

Most of the permanent sanitation workers are part of the Sharad Rao-led Municipal Mazdoor Union (MMU). While the MMU has questioned mechanisation in the context of it eliminating jobs, most unions do not see eye to eye.

One of the reasons that all sanitation workers do not come together to demand equal wages is because of the perceived hierarchies of the job and within the Dalit community.

Neeta Sane, a professor of Sociology at Dhyan Sadhna College, Thane, who has researched the socio-economic situation of sanitation workers across Maharashtra, has observed that different caste groups undertake the work in different towns and cities. “There is also a wide gap between the locals and migrants who take up this work,” she says. “Because of the scarcity of jobs, such hierarchies are maintained even though it would have been beneficial if all workers came together to demand better wages and working conditions.” In June 2016, for instance, an Ahmedabad-based company faced flak when it advertised jobs for sanitation workers, stating that preference will be given to members of upper castes, like Brahmins and Kshatriyas and Patels, and to Jains, Vaniyas, Parsis, Saiyads, Pathans and Syrian Christians. The incident exposed the deep-rooted caste bias in sanitation work.

Ranade explained: “Let’s say there is a dead dog lying on a street. When the BMC ward office gets information about this, the contract workers are sent to fetch the body. Most of the 28,500 are more concerned that the job passes onto the family members, and hence they would not step up for the rights of their colleagues whose employment is on contract.”

Mr. Patekar, who spoke at the celebration in Chunabhatti, is an example of the de facto hereditary nature of the job. His father was a sanitation worker; when the senior Mr. Patekar died of tuberculosis, the job passed to his mother. When Mr. Patekar failed his matriculation exam, it was suggested to him that he could always follow his parents’ footsteps as a sanitation worker. When his mother died, the job passed on to his younger brother. Mr. Patekar himself had hoped that his contractual employment would become permanent.

More battles

Does the triumph in the courts mean the end of contractual labour?

Far from it, Mr. Ranade says: KVSS has three other cases pending in the tribunal, which together would determine the fate of another 2,980 contract workers. “But I think workers now are hopeful that it is a matter of time before they become permanent employees of BMC. Workers are apprehensive of joining unions, because contractors can fire them any moment and there is no dearth of people wanting the job. But with this win, and the previous case in 1999 which changed the work status of 1,240 workers, workers feel that there is a purpose in joining us.”

“The Supreme Court has ruled that the contract system for sanitation workers is sham and bogus,” Mr. Patekar says. “By that measure, even I should become a permanent employee of BMC.” The status of his employment has been under litigation since 2004, in an industrial tribunal in a case for 580 workers (also a petition by KVSS). Of the 580, Mr. Patekar says, 220 of them have since succumbed to accidents while sweeping the streets, or to tuberculosis or to liver failure caused by excessive drinking. The conditions of the job take a high toll. In 2015, the BMC had found in a study that 1,386 sanitation workers had died in just the previous six years.

Mr. Patekar continues to work as a sanitation worker, where he is at the mercy of the contractor he reports to. He recently had three days’ wages deducted when he was admitted to hospital for chest pain. “My sister’s husband, as well as my first cousin, have died,” he says. “This job, and death because of the job, runs in the family. No Brahmin or Maratha will take this job. People joke that I am related to (the actor) Nana Patekar, but he is a Maratha while I am a Dalit. But I trust our Constitution and the rights it promises for all. Justice has prevailed for 2,700 of my brothers; it will prevail for the rest of us too.”

For Deepa Dothare, the verdict means a better life and job security, and she is cautiously optimistic. Prakash Kataramal too is planning ahead. With the arrears due to him, he wants to create savings accounts for his three daughters. “I can improve our house later. But I want to educate my daughters first so that they have better lives later.”

The legal battle

In a case filed in the Bombay High Court in 1996, Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh represented 1,200 workers. It referred to a Supreme Court judgement under the Industrial Labour Act and Contract Labour Act, that the abolition of the contract system would ensure the principal employer (BMC) would hire the workers directly. This was challenged in another case, by SAIL, which argued that the contractor would take his workers along, so there could be no question of workers being absorbed by the principal employers. The SAIL judgement of 2005 prevailed, and the system stayed.

Based on tenders issued by BMC in 2004 for new contractors, KVSS sought ‘permanent’ status for the 2004 batch of contract workers. Its dialogue with the BMC failed.

In 2007, KVSS filed a case in the industrial tribunal. In October 2014, the tribunal ruled in favour of the workers. The BMC challenged the order in the Bombay High Court. In December 2016, the HC also ruled in favour of the workers.

The verdict directed that the workers receive arrears from October 2014 onwards, amounting to around ₹2.5 lakh per worker.

A second appeal by the BMC in the SC was dismissed on April 7 this year. Apart from the salary hike and the crucial change of status, the SC ruling stipulates that the 2,700 workers also receive the mandatory provident fund, gratuity, house rent allowance, leave travel allowance, and “ghaan kaam bhatta” [dirty work allowance]. The SC has not yet set any timeline by which the arrears must be paid.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 4:56:00 AM |

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